Malcolm McDowell Woods
From the editor

The way it was

By - Aug 1st, 2009 12:01 am

Photo by Stephanie Bartz

The passing of Walter Cronkite a few days before the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing brought out a lot of reminiscing in the press about the power which both the medium of television and the practice of journalism once held.

I was a boy when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. My family and I watched grainy, faded black and white footage of the moment live on our living room television.

The astronauts, of course, were immediate heroes and worldwide celebrities. Millions of people stopped to watch or listen to the historic event.

We turned to television to follow the events and to the pages of our daily newspapers, which were given over to coverage.

After Cronkite’s death, his marathon duty covering the moon landing was widely recalled, particularly the excitement he was no longer able to hide when the Eagle landed.

Cronkite by then had come to wield incredible influence. When he aired a personal report during a visit to Vietnam questioning the wisdom of the war, it was credited with helping turn the tide of public opinion against the war.
Cronkite felt that journalists had a duty to hold up a mirror to society, to tell and show what had happened. “And that’s the way it was,” was his customary sign-off.

Of course, we have as a society come to realize that journalism is not infallible, that the image in that mirror was not necessarily a complete and fully accurate image. Filters and biases and incomplete and sometimes inaccurate information colored that image.

Still, the spotlight that bright mirror could bring to bear on a subject was enormous, whether it was a corrupt president or a failing war or a man stepping onto a foreign world.

We get our news from many different sources today. The network news audience has shrunk dramatically. And newspaper readership has fallen precipitously. With revenues shrinking, news organizations of all stripes have cut staffs and eliminated positions. Cronkite’s mirror is in a million pieces.

When something truly remarkable occurs, when a major celebrity dies or a new flu bursts onto the scene, then perhaps enough of those tiny shards of mirror may momentarily line up and focus their gaze – and ours.

But for the far more mundane, day to day stuff, for the decisions of the local planning board or the happenings down the street, where do we turn?

Perhaps there will always be a New York Times. Perhaps our own local daily will survive, if not in print then online. But if you live in Waukesha or Williams Bay or West Bend or Wauwatosa, where will you turn? Who will tell you “that’s the way it was?”

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